What To Do With The City Branch: Make It Part Of A 3 Mile Linear Park and Non-Motorized Transitway

June 8, 2012 | by Paul vanMeter


Editor’s Note: Last week, we reported that the Community Design Collaborative had awarded a service grant to ViaductGreene, the group who has presented a vision of a single, connected linear park comprised of the above ground Reading Viaduct and the submerged railbed (the City Branch, one of the oldest railways in the US) that runs west along Pennsylvania Avenue behind the Barnes Museum. That report produced a flurry of comments calling the idea into question. Most of the commenters hoped to see the City Branch returned to passenger rail service, connecting the transit juggernaut at City Hall with the less-than-perfectly-served Art Museum and Fairmount Park. Given the contentiousness of the response, we asked proponents of each side to make a case. What follows here is a vision of a park and non-motorized transitway by Paul vanMeter of ViaductGreene. Click HERE for Stephen Stofka’s case for returning the City Branch to transit use.

Landscape Park, Duisburg-Nord, Germany | Photo: ViaductGreene

Today the world is on cusp of a hyper-urbanism of dramatic and disruptive change. Places that power our imaginations will drive cities forward.

People seek the authentic. Picked padlocks, clipped chain links, broken barriers, paths of desire. The world over, people go, explore, see. They aren’t up-to-no-good, just curious about what’s there. One thing you can count on, behind those barriers there is a there there and–for less than entirely useful reasons–you can’t be there.

Sometimes it’s a building people want to experience; increasingly it’s a place, a site, “a built artifact, a mosaic of designs and purpose.” An authentic place. So often that means a post-industrial place, a post-industrial ruin.

…there has to be that interval of neglect, there has to be discontinuity; it is religiously and artistically essential. That is what I mean when I refer to the necessity for ruins: ruins provide the incentive for restoration, and for a return to origins. There has to be (in our new concept of history) an interim of death or rejection before there can be renewal and reform. The old order has to die before there can be a born-again landscape. — J.B. Jackson, author of A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time

It was with great intentions of civic habit, urban restructuring and beautification, that the old order, Philadelphia’s powerful industrial base, its workshop of world, was rejected and died.

Image: ViaductGreene

No place in Philadelphia better exemplifies this change than the Reading Railroad’s combined City and 9th Street Branch railroads, the Reading Viaduct and its older and less understood underground section–what together we imagine as a three mile linear park, ViaductGreene. It is a great place, a ruin awaiting a born-again landscape.

In 1927, Christopher Hussey’s The Picturesque raised the notion that western civilization’s most important contribution to architecture is the integrated and planned landscape. His articles of the 1920s fostered interest in historic preservation when important places were being demolished. The Picturesque celebrates the aesthetic and how it was practiced in 17th and 18th century garden design–that ruins and wildness have power as old Rome or Greece does; elements to be respected and dignified.

It was with a prodigious interest in gardenmaking, respecting and dignifying the ruin, that Liz Maillie and I founded ViaductGreene, the idea of creating a born-again landscape. The goal? Not to screw it up! To that perfection of the authentic we are committed.

We acknowledge the equally authentic urge to return the City Branch to transit. On the other hand, experience tells us that the best light-rail systems are at grade. So I agree with the planners suggesting that light-rail be integrated into the Benjamin Franklin Parkway.

But we are not–I don’t believe anyone is–opposed to the idea that one day, some day, under some unknown and currently unforeseeable circumstance, rail transit can return to the City Branch. Indeed, any substantive access improvements (stairs, elevators, etc.) made for creating a gardenpark could support it.

If someone really does have a viable sounding plan, utilizing the current equipment available, realistic financing, I’m thrilled to listen. Who wouldn’t be?

In our analysis–and we are dedicated rail people in love with trains and transit–there are too many practical impediments to integrating the City Branch into the SEPTA system. Too short, too deep, too inaccessible for practical connections to either the Rt 15 or Broad Street Subway, the ViaductGreene corridor is compelling as transit for pedestrians and bicyclists: 55 blocks without encountering automobiles, trucks, and buses with all their correspondent traffic controls has immeasurable appeal!

Just now, and for the near-long term future, we see telling the story of the city’s industrial past, and creating access and programming to what already is a great, exciting, and beautiful place worthwhile in the extreme and imminently doable, no matter the challenges.

Thus, ViaductGreene seeks to create a garden of intersecting culture and wildness along the soaring and submersive landscape infrastructure that is the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad’s 9th Street & City Branches.

The Big Idea is that it is impossible to consider the mostly below-grade City Branch severed from the elevated viaduct of the 9th Street Branch, any more than it’s severed from the history of its great city and its grandest building projects. Book-ended with Philadelphia’s pioneer 1830s railway corridors, it is a great place and like all great places, it’s the marked contrasts within a powerful consistency that attracts us.

As respectful placemakers, we maintain no small understanding of interdisciplinary design imagination as well as design process.

Image: P&R Magazine 4-2-2 #385. Baldwin, 1895

In design, ViaductGreene celebrates the stories of the City Branch and people. The “detached, superior and slightly intellectual” Reading, Philadelphia’s rowdy railroad; the other railroad. The massive Baldwin Locomotive Works with its enormously efficient products of deep craft and astonishing beauty exported the world over. Spectacular and ever relevant personalities from Stephen Girard to Franklin Gowen, Frank Furness, Archie McLeod to Tony Drexel, George Childs. Whiteboys, Ribbonmen, Mollie Maguires. “Ned” Stotesbury to Jacques Gréber and Paul Philippe Cret. Roberts, Scotts, and Cassatts. John Wanamaker, John Johnson, and Walter Annenberg. How superb it is the powers-that-be have, of late, brought Philadelphia’s favorite misanthrope Albert Barnes to the neighborhood! The precious tales!

Only in the recent past have placemakers moved past emulating and replicating spaces to embracing places with their own powerful mythology, places like ViaductGreene, and with them, to creating a born-again landscape.

Photo: ViaductGreene

In design, ViaductGreene illuminates darkness, often wonderfully, sometimes dramatically.

In design, ViaductGreene’s grade-separated infrastructure circumscribes safe, secure passage and regulates open hours.

In design, ViaductGreene’s undercover portions hold great promise for programming, animation and activity, important when making a fiscally sustainable place.

In respectful design will come pleasure, charm, health, and answers to the detractors questions. In respectful design will come transformation, participation, invention, engagement, and enchantment–a new and authentic experience of the city.



  1. “On the other hand, experience tells us that the best light-rail systems are at grade.”

    False. Transit planning experience tells us nothing less than THE EXACT OPPOSITE.

    1. Liam says:

      I’m more interested in figuring who the “planners” are who want to integrate light rail into the Parkway?

      1. That’s a straw man and a bait-and-switch to boot. Nobody wants to integrate light rail into the Parkway.

        Instead, what’s happening is that advocates are proposing utilizing disused rights-of-way running through neighborhoods near (but not on) the Parkway for transit improvement. The fact that it brushes the side of the Parkway destinations is a bonus, but the core of the proposal is to serve Fairmount.

  2. Petro says:

    Too deep for rail, but not too deep for pedestrians to climb down into and out of again? And light rail on an already overcrowded Parkway? What do you have against the Parkway? Sorry, you did not convince me.

  3. Nabil Rahman says:

    There is too much fluff and not enough substance to disprove a greater need to restore the City Branch. I applaud your efforts for promoting your cause, but your cause is clearly romanticized for one specific minority.

    At the end of the day, which project has the greater positive economic impact? You don’t need to spend William Penn Foundation grant to find the short answer.

    If we want a greener city, work on the bike trails after the needs of hundreds (thousands?) of potential riders are met. There will be space for better trails. Finding land for rail is much more limited.

  4. Davis says:

    Your “Landscape Park” photo from Duisburg shows me everything I need to see – it is devoid of humanity – as a greenspace park it invites crime and homeless “residents” – the very idea of a park in a tunnel creeps me out totally.

  5. DeltaV says:

    I read lots of lofty language, but little useful fact. This city can barely keep the homeless from disturbing patrons of our existing, street level parks, let alone trying to keep homeless and criminals out of a sub-street level park.

    The city line is perfect for a transit line paralleling the Schuylkill River. It would provide access to the existing park infrastructure to those who currently don’t have easy access (Chinatown, even the Gayborhood area if it was extended along the old 23 line). It could turn into a sub-surface trolley system like we have in West Philly, which is successful (and has been retained by SEPTA) ONLY because it becomes a subway when it enters the city core, allowing it to avoid traffic.

  6. Veillantif says:

    I think it’s telling that the viaductgreene folks love to use this manipulated old aerial photo, which shows the 9th Street Branch and City Branch as some kind of magical strand of unspoiled nature in the middle of a forbidding grey urban dystopia. The surrounding cityscape looks absolutely nothing like that, and neither would the park they want to have built.

    This encapsulates precisely what’s wrong with viaductgreene’s proposal: it is beautiful, as long as you forget the context. It makes perfect sense, as long as you forget logic. And Mr. vanMeter’s proposal sounds nice enough, if you don’t read the counterproposal.

    A “respectful design” is one that gives the community what it needs, not what viaductgreene think they should need.

    1. Paul vanMeter says:

      As we meet and introduce ViaductGreene to members of the community and residents of the neighborhoods that border the site, it seems the community does indeed want it. Most accept the fact that laying rail in the City Branch cut isn’t happening anytime soon, if ever. What might be happening soon is ViaductGreene. Community members seem happy about it and all the possibilities.

      1. Mike says:

        So what you’re saying is, they’d prefer rail, but will settle for a park if rail isn’t on the table.

        1. Paul vanMeter says:

          Not at all. Let me put it this way: most accept the fact that rail isn’t ever being laid along the City Branch because there are better ideas. Some can’t.

  7. MP says:

    Grade separated, be it on a separate ROW or below ground, functions best. It’s the only reason the West Philly trolleys are still around: since they run BELOW grade from 40th Street to Center City it allows them to bypass the traffic in Center City. Putting light rail on the Parkway is the exact opposite thing you want to do.

  8. Jake says:

    Paul, How does the success of duisburg nord landscape park, which you have as your opening photo, translate to a successful underground linear park? Duisburg is a former industrial steel mill site, which is a vast open tract with abandoned relics at it’s center. This is more akin to redeveloping some of our abandoned power plants or industrial sites, such as what is being done at The Carrie Furnace in Pittsburgh.

    Seeing a photo of Duisburg excites me about the possibilities of redeveloping the Schuylkill banks or Richmond Power Station. Citing Duisburg as a successful precursor for the City Branch is like citing the Race St Pier as a precursor to the Reading Viaduct, it just doesn’t correlate.

    1. Jake,
      The choice of that image was mine, as editor (though it came from ViaductGreene’s website). I chose it for the visual quality of showing a below-grade park reuse, not to make a direct correlation between the projects. –ed.

    2. Paul vanMeter says:

      Glad you’re excited about possibilities of post-industrial sites. I don’t believe the photo choice was about being so literal or site-specific, as much as I like it. Check http://www.viaductgreene.org for more inspiration. As stated, “The Big Idea is that it is impossible to consider the mostly below-grade City Branch severed from the elevated viaduct of the 9th Street Branch, any more than it’s severed from the history of its great city and its grandest building projects. Book-ended with Philadelphia’s pioneer 1830s railway corridors, it is a great place and like all great places, it’s the marked contrasts within a powerful consistency that attracts us.”

  9. Nabil Rahman says:

    How can we properly organize and create a group to counter ViaductGreene? I have limited experience and knowledge, but I would be happy to assist this cause. Is this something HiddenCity can champion?

    It appears many feel passionate about the potential blunder that is being pushed in Fairmount.

    1. Kourtni Guzanowski says:

      Nabil, I would have to agree with your earlier comment about bicycles being the most used transportation in Philadelphia. It also seems to me that utilizing this great space in a more dynamic way (for cyclists) would lower the potential for crime. The idea to make this viaduct into a park does not seem to speak to the Fairmount/Loft District area.

  10. Let me break apart this paragraph for a bit…

    “In our analysis–and we are dedicated rail people in love with trains and transit–there are too many practical impediments to integrating the City Branch into the SEPTA system. Too short, too deep, too inaccessible for practical connections to either the Rt 15 or Broad Street Subway, the ViaductGreene corridor is compelling as transit for pedestrians and bicyclists: 55 blocks without encountering automobiles, trucks, and buses with all their correspondent traffic controls has immeasurable appeal!”

    “Too short, too deep”…The City Branch cut is only about 25 feet deep–for comparison, that’s the depth of the shallowest parts of the Market Street tunnel. The BSL runs deeper. Subways have been built 80 feet deep or more. Too deep–yeah, right. Too short? Length isn’t a major determinant for success–Dallas’ light rail has proved that much. Rather, getting people from where they are to where they want to go is. The City Branch is in an excellent position to do just that.

    “Too inaccessible for practical connections to either the Rt 15 or Broad Street Subway”…The physical evidence weighs against this. About three blocks from the Cut to the Ridge Ave. Spur on the eastern end; plenty of space for a connection ramp on the western. Mode will have to be addressed, but the connection gaps are, from a transit planning perspective, TRIVIAL.

    “The ViaductGreene corridor is compelling as transit for pedestrians and bicyclists”…Except it isn’t. It’s sunken. It requires a grade change to access. As far as bicyclists are concerned, the (flat) Spring Garden Greenway is superior–which will also have the added benefit of creating a beautiful urban boulevard, the sort of pleasurable experience people come to cities for. And that’s not getting into all the still-unresolved safety issues.

    “55 blocks without encountering automobiles, trucks, and buses with all their correspondent traffic controls has immeasurable appeal!”…55 blocks is 5.5 miles. You know where I can go 5.5 miles without encountering traffic? The Schuylkill River Trail, Pennypack Park, and the Wissahickon Gorge. All of which have far more compelling scenery than a constant stone embankment.

    One of the Viaduct’s main amenities is its views, something the underground section doesn’t have. If successful, it would have to work as a transportation option–but the balance of investment in the area tells us it would instead be a duplicative boondoggle.

    1. Paul vanMeter says:

      So pick your mode! What will it be? Rt. 15 trolleys or BSL?

      ViaductGreene isn’t compelling to you as transit for pedestrians and bicyclists? It’s sunken–is that really an obstacle? With such an interest in looking “at architecture, siting, streetscapes, transportation, access, and other subtle elements that make a city a city” shouldn’t we also think more imaginatively about the transformative possibilities of design? It’s in the imaginative solutions to accessing this powerful place that we’ll transform it–and our relationship to it.

      1. Liam says:

        It’s irresponsible to just a pick a mode at this point. The City Branch has not been study in any meaningful way in 10 years, so the data on how different modes would perform is out of date. A new Alternatives Analysis needs to be completed to study this.

        You can’t just draw up a plan in your head, put it down on paper, and then figure how to build it. That’s not how the development of major capital projects works.

        First, you define the range of reasonable options. Then, you develop all of the options to a level where they can be analyzed and compared. Then, you start crossing off the critically flawed options, and advance the design of the promising ones. That’s an Alternatives Analysis. Anything less runs the risk of defining a plan without ever defining the different ways to fulfill the needs of an area.

        1. Paul vanMeter says:

          Steve Stofka has done just that with light rail, unless when he’s thinking subway.

          I’m aware of how development of major capital projects works. The necessary meaningful study has been done; conclusions made, and accordingly, plans made, or, in the case of the City Branch, not.

          1. NO! As Liam has said, IT IS IRRESPONSIBLE TO PICK A MODE UNTIL A FAIR ALTERNATIVES ANALYSIS IS DONE. I have suggested two viable modes, and the strengths and weaknesses of both, and left it for others to decide.

            The problem here is that the necessary work has NOT been done. The 2006 (thanks for correcting–I had originally remembered a date closer to 2002) City Branch Cut to 52nd St. plan AA was fatally biased, because of its use of 52nd St. as a terminal–a decision that only makes sense if the whole plan is done in the lens of the SVM. (If you are going to 52nd St., why not just go all the way up to St. Joe’s and tap the latent ridership there?)

            We have discussed the other problems with that proposal, but this is its core one. Setting the destination at 52nd St. predestined it to fail.

            Instead, I suggest:

            1. IF light rail (SS-compatible), terminate at 40th, where a turnback loop already exists. This gets you the Zoo and is close to Please Touch. In Center City, terminate at Bainbridge.
            2. IF a light metro (BSL-compatible, utilizing existing BSL equipment), terminate at Girard, with excellent transfer to the 15 and proximity to Brewerytown destinations, like the new grocery store going up. In Center City, utilize the existing Ridge Spur terminus; discontinue revenue service along the Spur from the junction in Callowhill to Fairmount.

            These are the two obvious alternatives. Both have their merits, and so I am compelled to present both.

            But, as I have already noted, the study you reference has been identified as problematic, at best, since the moment it came out. The problem is that it was designed almost as weakly as possible in order to make the expansion seem like a poor idea.

      2. DeltaV says:

        No, viaduct green is not compelling as transit for pedestrians or bikes. When I visit a city or travel by my own I want to interact with it, see the people and feel the wind in my face. I don’t want to be hidden away in a ditch. I don’t visit NYC, London, or anywhere else to hang out in the subway, and I wouldn’t do it in Philly, either

        1. Paul vanMeter says:

          I love the wind in my face too; it’s the yin and the yang, the times the wind isn’t in your face makes the times it is lovable. The greatest of spaces ever designed include walls- especially gardens. Many were referred to as ditches. “The basic design of sunken ditches is of ancient origins, being a feature of deer parks in England from Norman times onward;” as classic as Acanthus leaves are to architecture.
          I certainly apreciate the subways of NYC, and London and I have to admit to sometimes hanging around the more interesting stations, but agreed, once you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty much seen them all. What I go to cities for are spaces of singular distinction, as ViaductGreene promises to be.

  11. Paul vanMeter says:

    Saying 52nd Street = predestined to fail is way out of line. The Centennial District and the West Park Side Enterprise Zone Plans offer fantastic long, long overdue improvements, as does the Cultural Corridor light-rail, the street-level one, the one along the Parkway.

  12. Richard says:

    Imagine all the folks who could traverse the viaduct green from west Philly….55 blocks without crossing a street..
    Lots and lots of empty space in the underground near city hall for bike racks…Now think of the developers
    Who might want to build more housing for students or seniors, very low cost for land, a beautiful linear park
    Close by that connects to city hall and all of septa ? YOU WANT TRANSIT ….Let bike taxis run on the
    Bike lanes on the viaduct….let the people have a pretty park to relax in…One of the pluses that viaduct Greene
    Has in common with the high line is that for the most part access is limited…when bad people see there’s
    No easy get away….they stay away… A protected and privately cared for linear park with dedicated bike
    Lanes running its length with a uninterrupted connection to city hall…….IT’S A NO BRAINER !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  13. Richard says:


  14. comments on this article now closed. –ed.

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